Directed and co-starring Matt Johnson and inspired by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s business history, Losing the Signal, “BlackBerry” is shot in a raggedy, trembling handheld style that suggests what an episode of “The Office” guest-scripted by David Mamet might have felt like. The most fascinating thing about the script, co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, is its structure. It shows us the beginning and end of this story but nothing else. The ellipsis in the middle gives the film a more intriguing energy than it would have had than if it had followed the standard playbook of meticulously tracking the rise and fall of a product and its purveyors. It’s what it might feel like to watch only the first and last episodes of an excellent TV drama that ran for years—or maybe like the MoneyBro equivalent of “Full Metal Jacket,” the only war film that shows naive recruits being trained/brainwashed at the beginning of the process and their cynical, hardened-by-war, final incarnations, but skips the middle part showing how the change happened.
The BlackBerry, of course, was the handheld device that the iPhone and its imitators wiped out of the marketplace. Part one of the movie shows how Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his partner Douglas Fregin (Johnson) created the BlackBerry and figured out how to let huge numbers of them operate on the same cellular network without crashing the system, then watched as its popularity spread, putting them on the verge of becoming tech icons in the mold of Steve Jobs.
Like many creative geniuses, Mike and Doug lack the ruthlessness and nuts-and-bolts knowledge they need to survive and thrive in a capitalist system. They’re nerds usually bullied by their clients, including one who owes them millions for products they already shipped and has been stringing them along for months. Enter Jim Ballsillie (Glenn Howerton), a dominating executive and hockey buff who feels unappreciated at his current job. He senses that the duo is on the verge of something big and offers to make their problems disappear and grow the company if they make him CEO. Doug sizes Jim up as a “shark” and is justifiably terrified of him. But Mike, who stammers and cringes his way through any call asking for money, makes Jim “co-CEO” because he thinks there’s value in hiring someone who can strike fear in the heart of anyone who might try to take advantage of them and is bold enough to seize the initiative when it’s presented. “You know who’s afraid of sharks? Pirates,” Mike says.
The movie sprints through the company’s rise, compressing a lot of the story into lively montages shot in the style of a Steven Soderbergh heist film (or business procedural like his “High Flying Bird” or “The Informant!”), often leaning into the innate ridiculousness of a scenario—or the ridiculousness of somebody taking a supervisor’s instructions too far. (When Jim orders everyone at the company to become “male models” and be seen in public using BlackBerries no matter what activity they’re engaged in, the film cuts to a man playing tennis one-handed while using his free hand to hold a device.) There’s suspense that centers on whether the exponential increase in BlackBerry sales will overload their wireless carrier’s system and render their product unusable; the solution is ingenious.